This collection may be all about fast forwarding, but with material this strong, it's worth hitting slow mo and zoom. Over the course of its one Introduction, two epigraphs and fourteen stories, Fast Forward 2 proves itself that rare beast among anthologies of the imagination: one whose content actually provides a materialization of its own theoretical blueprint.
Let's look more closely at the visions of its fourteen directors.
Fast Forward 2's showy centerpiece is the novella "True Names" by Cory Doctorow & Benjamin Rosenbaum, presented in hyper-widescreen. This is a story so densely populated with "—al" ideas (ontological, epistemological, SFnal, computational, mythological, legal, cryptographical, take your pick) that it's probably as close to actually being made of computronium as a contemporary SF story can be. Many of these ideas (those which I understood, or think I understood) tickled my brain and commanded my respect, and as an exercise in extreme imagination I found it impressive—but as a work of fiction it is the one piece in Fast Forward 2 that failed to keep me entertained or engrossed. "True Names" presents a Universe in which three highly advanced forms of AI, Beebe, the Demiurge and Brobdignag compete for computation and ideology. About the Demiurge, we learn that
"Where replication arises, so does evolution. And what is evolution? The tyranny of that which can make itself more common. I love life, Paquette-of-Beebe; I love the strange new forms that bloom so quickly where life is afoot. But life tends toward intelligence and intelligence toward ubiquitous computation—and ubiquitous computation, left unchecked, would crush the cosmos under its boot, reducing 'world' to 'substrate.'
That is what I am for." (p. 122)
Brobdignag and Beebe fulfill similarly esoteric but logical functions, and the power struggle between them, as experienced by the characters of Alonzo, Algernon, Paquette, Nadia and others, sometimes as emulations inside each other's entity matrices, serves as the springboard for the novella's central, and abstract, preoccupations. I found myself unable to develop any attachment for the characters or their simulations: the dialogue was too stultified with adolescent-sounding techno-avatar-isms like, "But Alonzo, she's so hot!" and their behavior comprised more of wide-eyed naivete and sardonic posturing than any real emotion. This left me skating on the sheer and audacious profligacy of concepts. What I found was a beautiful museum collection, a magnificent display of pre-existing ideas arranged in fabulous geometries and twisted into pleasing, recombinant strategies of exuberance, only lacking the one arresting moment of originality that can take our breath away. This might seem like a strange claim on my part. Perhaps "True Names" is so Far Out, in setting, that I found myself not caring sufficiently about how Far Out it was. Not even the Solipsist's Lemma could save me.
Missions into space involving the use of less grandiose forms of AI receive very different treatments in Jack McDevitt's "Molly's Kids" and Jeff Carlson's "Long Eyes," though both share the idea of sentient, self-aware AI potentially behaving willfully. McDevitt's briskly told piece concerns the first flight to Alpha Centauri. But the mission involves no human passengers, rather an AI named Cory (how appropriate) who refuses to launch the ship. The attempts to circumvent its logic lead to a humorous and thoughtful story that makes its point, about the sentient AI perhaps being "bigger than the original mission," in an understated manner. Of the two stories "Long Eyes" is grimmer in tone, though in conclusion conciliatory in its view of the human spirit. Clara is a human-machine hybrid that sends reports back home and influences all of the ship's systems, except for its independently thinking mind. That turns out to be more than a minor inconvenience when the ship decides to explore a small planet in a gas supergiant system. The dangers Clara encounters are revealed swiftly and in visceral fashion, steering the space opera framework of the narrative light-years away from cozy.
There is yet more AI. Though it may not appear so on the surface, it plays a central role in Ian McDonald's future India story "An Eligible Boy." Jasbir is looking for marriage, and eventually comes across Ram Tarun Das, Master of Grooming, Grace, and Gentlemanliness, a piece of software (or more) designed to assist him in his endeavor. Subsequently, Jasbir meets Shulka, and aided by Das' whispers, the courting games begin. The plot is unpredictable and the setting and character nuances just as absorbing. By the story's second page we witness the following:
On the platform of Cashmere Café metro station, chip-implanted police-monkeys canter, shrieking, between the legs of passengers, driving away the begging, tugging, thieving macaques that infest the subway system. (p. 242)
This is just one of the myriad images that perfectly encapsulates the most dramatic of dichotomies in India's future, namely the intersection of high-tech and tradition, and how that meeting will re-invent both. "An Eligible Boy" is lighter fare than, and not quite as moving as, McDonald's entry in Fast Forward 1, "Sanjeev and Robotwallah," but it is also more sophisticated and plausible.
Nonhuman intelligence, this time in the form of aliens, interferes with humans in a big way in "The Kindness of Strangers" by Nancy Kress, which starts like this: "When morning finally dawns, Rochester isn't there anymore." (p. 79)
After this excellent Little Big opening (Little because it's Rochester, Big because any city disappearing achieves the type of scale that is best conveyed by SF) Kress establishes that Jenny, Eric and a group of other survivors are being held captive in an area demarcated by an impenetrable force-field established by aliens. Kress accomplishes many things impressively in this disquieting tale of cosmic-perspective morals; she creates rich, complex characters, especially in Jenny and Eric, and she presents the human reactions to these cataclysmic events poignantly by describing the smallest details of behavior in an unsentimental way (for example, how Jenny straightens the blankets on top of the mattress on which Eric and she have shared an unaffectionate night's sleep). Kress also creates a convincing alien presence that is simultaneously comical and abominable. There is a sense in which the aliens' logic is validated by a characteristic of social interaction that seems to contradict what we usually see in survivors-with-limited-resources stories. In works from William Golding's Lord of the Flies to Stephen King's The Mist, a pocket of humanity up against a terrible or incomprehensible enemy, whether it be loneliness and starvation or E.T. tentacles, typically degenerates into violence, supernatural belief and even sadism. It is not giving too much away to observe that in Kress' case, things are quite different—indeed,
"Except for a few dour loners, mostly armed, people have been remarkably generous with their supplies. There have been no fights, no looting, no theft." (p. 89)
This is not the most remarkable aspect of "The Kindness of Strangers," but it does suggest that in addition to the title's immediate reading, humans may be regarded as strangers also, capable of demonstrating kindness in difficult times.
If alien intelligences meddling with the evolution of humanity gets its due, so does the theme of humanity meddling with other species and the planet Earth. "Mitigation" by Karl Schroeder and Tobias S. Buckell provides thought-provoking, science-informed warnings on environmental disaster and the preservation of species through genetic sequencing, but, despite the seriousness of these topics, has a lot of fun while doing so. Chauncie St. Christie is offered a deal by Maksim (Russian mafia) that is too good to pass up; hitch a ride to Svalbard with scientist River and sequence some rare paleo-seeds, and then transmit the genetic code via satellite for a boatload of money. Will things work out according to plan? Both Schroeder and Buckell have demonstrated a talent for plot and pacing in their solo stories, and "Mitigation" has the same virtues. The action is well-staged and made all the more entertaining by the ubiquitous presence of extrapolated technology, as well as striking imagery ("Broken Styrofoam, twirling beer cans, and plush toys from a container-ship accident drifted in the trawler's wake; farther out, the Johnnies bobbed in their thousands, a marine forest through which dozens of larger vessels had to pick their way"). The characters are smart and smart-alecky, but with enough moral compunction for us to care about them and the larger issues at stake. "Mitigation" serves up the healthiest dose of realpolitik and environmental science in Fast Forward 2, for which its inclusion is welcome, and it does so with style and verve.
"The Sun Also Explodes" by Chris Nakashima-Brown is Fast Forward 2's most stylistically engaging outing, and perhaps also its most difficult to summarize. Living in Colonia, a legally independent "microstate," and pursuing a three-year fellowship paid for by the Virilian Investors Cultural Fund, the narrator finds himself entangled, emotionally and professionally, with bio-artist Elkin, a "genomic postmodernist." Nakashima-Brown brilliantly depicts the subtle inter-personal dynamics of the narrator with his friends and with Elkin, and enriches his mostly plot-less tale with thoughtful literary references (get out your Hemingway) and poetic descriptions such as the following:
"She had an effortless gravitas despite her elfin physique. Manicured cowgirl tan, sprouting flaxen gray-blonde shorns, and sweating wealth and status through her faded black T-shirt and brown dungarees. Eyes like the milky heart of Marfa agate sliced through, clouds of unexpected color lurking within oiled pearls." (p. 62)
Make no mistake, despite the literary veneer, the SF elements are everywhere, and this is as an SF story at its core, not a modernist study in ennui transliterated to the idiom of SF. But Nakashima-Brown's SF "furniture" is not always brightly illuminated or center-stage. It is no less dazzling or mesmerizing for it, though.
In Jack Skillingstead's "Alone With An Inconvenient Companion," the story's voice is perhaps as important as the story itself. Douglas Fulcher meets a woman, Lori, from the Intrinsic Genetics convention at the hotel where he's staying, and in between several rounds of flirtatious banter learns of a "cyborg project" her company is developing. What else might the woman know, and how willing will Fulcher's be to expose his theory about the "mechanism" of the world to her? Fulcher's existential alienation and distrust are superbly rendered, and are central story-driving themes. Skillingstead's craft is well-displayed by its lack of apparent presence; the naturalness of the prose is in perfect counterpoint to the unreality of Fulcher's perceptions. An example of this effect appears early in the conversation, when Skillingstead writes of Fulcher, "He laughed, but not like he meant it, though he did, a little. Which surprised him." In its protagonist's extreme alienation, "Alone With An Inconvenient Companion" recalls Barry N. Malzberg's short fiction. Consider:
"She had a nice swing in her backyard, but that was less interesting than it should have been. He sensed the mechanism of his compulsion and rejected it. There had been too many women in too many hotel bars, all of them finally adding up to a big empty zero [...] He would call Sara, his wife, to inhabit the familiarity of their complicated estrangement. Alone but not alone, in anonymous hotel rooms. There but not there." (p. 102)
Astute readers will anticipate the story's finale, and Lori's lack of skepticism at certain key moments may stretch our belief a bit thin. But in terms of mood and intensity, this story is Fast Forward 2's most convenient companion.
"Catherine Drew" by Paul Cornell is wildly inventive. Its Hero, Hamilton, speaks in a way ("'You've got a problem, Miss Drewe,' he said") that captures the essence of this alternate-history spy thriller in a British Empire-dominated future. The plot, propelled not so much by a single McGuffin as by a combustible gas of intelligent deceptions and counter-deceptions, makes as much sense as it needs to:
'Is that the mission, sir?'
'No. We've created and are ready to plant chaotic information of an unbreakable nature strongly suggesting that this has already happened...' (p. 22)
The alternate history milieu expertly justifies not only the background but the feel of the world that Cornell creates, yet is never so startling as to prove distracting from Hamilton's exploits. Shaken, not stirred? More like vacuum-decompressed.
In Paul McAuley's "Adventure" you can get Ian Brown out of Earth, but you can't necessarily get Earth out of Ian Brown. The story, containing some fine descriptions that double as character externalization, is cleverly peppered with allusive names like "Port of Plenty," "Prospect Hills," "Vaults of the Fisher Kings," "Mountains of the Moon" and the "City of the Dead" that serve as an ironic reminder of our cultural heritage/baggage. A character experiencing self-discovery in the desert is not new to SF (consider Robert Silverberg's 1971 feast-of-transcendence "The Feast of St Dionysus," or parts of Frank Herbert's Dune series) but McAuley's narrative is effective and finely crafted, and also works as an allegorical examination of immigration into the New World in the nineteenth century.
"Not Quite Alone in the Dream Quarter" by Mike Resnick and Pat Cadigan was apparently conceived several years ago, but neither its power nor humanist relevance will likely be diminished by the passage of time. In a story as polished as anything we have come to expect from its two notable authors, but perhaps more oppressive in tone and setting than any of their recent solo efforts, they dream up a reality in which humans receive Dreams from, well, Dreams. The Dreams are both the physical manifestations of the beings who, living in apartments rat-packed with human artifacts, provide the visions, and the visions themselves. But what do Dreams receive in exchange? When the narrator kills one of them, and can't remember how it happened, he provokes an investigation that may lead to deeper answers. The procedural aspect of the story fails to engage, but the underlying notion of metaphysical parasitism is enthralling, and it ends on what is perhaps Fast Forward 2's bleakest note. It's also the only story in the collection to reach in anything like a slipstream direction—one of those instances where Lou Ander's editorial and organizational finesse clearly makes the whole greater than the sum of its dreams, since the story is strengthened by its positioning within the collection.
"The Gambler" by Paolo Bacigalupi explores one character's sense of responsibility to honest news-reporting in a world that dictates content by popularity (pings, clicks, links, social pokes, etc.). The narrator's distinctive first-person voice and observations on culture ("Americans are very direct") weave a fascinating tapestry, though I personally found some of his uninformed perspective unlikely, and bordering on irrational righteousness. Search for identity is always compelling, though, when handled adeptly, and that is certainly the case in this piece. "True Names," "Molly's Kids" and "The Gambler" all make comments of varying seriousness on generational succession. "The Gambler" does so most eloquently by having the protagonist explicitly recognize how he is following in his father's ideological footsteps.
Special Features (8/10)
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my author bios and story introductions before each story, not tucked away at the back of an anthology, and Fast Forward 2 delivers—Anders' informative and anecdotal story introductions make for a good producer's commentary. Moreover, in his quote-peppered Introduction, Lou Anders identifies two primary characteristics of SF (entertainment, venue for technological examination) and what he sees as SF's four main "purposes" (to be predictive, preventative, inspirational, and allegorical). Whatever quibbles one might have with this quasi-theoretic schema, it is significant because it sets out a well-defined prescription for SF in terms of reader and social response, and that, more than anything else, indicates what the Fast Forward series is all about. Every story in Fast Forward 2 fulfills not only one but several of the above functions.
Similarly, the epigraphs by Theodore Sturgeon and Paul McAuley, which I've left for last, offer a practical definition of what SF is and a historically contextualized suggestion of where SF needs to go. I have some reservations about McAuley's argument that SF "lately" is "pale and lank and kind of out of focus" (and when does that "lately" refer to, anyway?) and that to "reconnect with the world's weather" it should not dally about with "fluffy make-believe worlds" but should rather exaggerate reality to the n-th degree, examine "radical and subversive ideas." If SF is the "holy fool of literature" and can already do what it wants because "no one takes it seriously," why bother adhering to McAuley's program? Certain gents and ladies of the New Wave (and many subsequent Ripples) spent a lot of time and a lot of work and expended a lot of angst trying to get SF to be taken seriously, so that those "subversive" ideas could be voiced to an audience beyond the targeted adolescent demographic of commercial genre fiction. Whether they succeeded or not, their valiant attempts certainly left a trail of ruinously good work in their wake, a bloody imprint of noble endeavor. One doesn't need to be held in disregard to be able to tackle difficult material (though the regard may often not be immediate). If the opposite were true, the twentieth century wouldn't have seen as many subversive works of literature as it has. James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Rainer Maria Rilke, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, on and on—there is something "radical and subversive" in their work, elements that shock and contradict the known and established, socially and aesthetically, to this day. These works are indeed taken seriously (too much so, some would say). To "straighten up and fly right," I don't think SF necessarily needs to turn reality "up to eleven": it should dial reality up to two or eight or twenty-three or all the way down to minus five as is most appropriate for the particular story it is trying to tell. What it should do, above all else, is tell stories well, so well that they cannot be disregarded, so well that they cannot but be taken seriously. Fortunately for us, Fast Forward 2 arrives with gifts that do just that. May it be followed by plenty of equally riveting and well-produced sequels.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters he was crazy enough to earn a BS in Theoretical Physics and study creative writing. His fiction has appeared in Atomjack Magazine, Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine and will appear in a forthcoming issue of Farrago's Wainscot. Alvaro's reviews of speculative fiction and poetry appear regularly at The Fix , and critical reviews and essays have also appeared in Fruitless Recursion and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Visit him at his blog, Waiting for My Aineko.